Hope in the Dawn of the 7th Fire

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By Guest Writer Tina Kuckkahn-Miller, J.D., on the transfer of the Yale Union Building to NACF

Anishinaabe spiritual leader Bawdwaywedun Banaise (Edward Benton Banai) shares teachings about the Prophecies of the Seven Fires in the Mishomis (Grandfather) Book. He describes how, many years ago, seven prophets came to the Anishinaabe people living on the Northeast Coast of North America; each prophet described an era of time that would come to pass. The first three fires describe the great migration of the Anishinabe people, whose ancestors traveled along the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes region. There they found “the food that grows on water”—our sacred food known as Manoomin, or wild rice.

Two prophets described what would happen in the time of the Fourth Fire, when “the Light-skinned Race” would encounter the Indigenous peoples of the land. It was foretold that they would wear one of two faces; if they came wearing the face of brotherhood, then the two nations would be joined by two more nations and together they would become “the mightiest nation of all”. However, one of the prophets warned: “Beware if the Light-skinned Race comes wearing the face of ni-boo-win’ (death). You must be careful because the face of brotherhood and the face of death look very much alike . . . you shall know that the face they wear is the one of death if the rivers run with poison and fish become unfit to eat.”

It feels impossible to talk about re-Indigenization of space in Portland, and in Oregon, without relating what is happening today – there and in the rest of the world – with what has been shown to us by ancient prophecies. Right now, our part of the world is, quite literally, on fire. The streets of Portland have been the scene of more than 100 days of protest against racial injustice. The brave souls who stand up for racial equity and social justice put themselves at risk against armed militias pouring in from all parts of the U.S., fomented by divisive rhetoric that seems to be picking up speed at nearly the same rate as the wildfires that burn in and around the City of Roses. All of this is happening against the backdrop of a global pandemic. Where is the hope in what feels like an apocalyptic world?

A recent virtual Gathering of Indigenous Visual Artists, hosted by the Evergreen Longhouse, helps to illustrate the importance of establishing and nurturing cross cultural relationships among artists that can span the globe and inspire life-long relationships. Artists in this international network have been gathering and exchanging artistic knowledge and cultural teachings since 1995, when the national Māori visual arts council – Te Atinga – hosted the first gathering in Rotorua, New Zealand. As we interacted with each other from tiny digital cubes ranging across our screens, we had no way of knowing when we will be able to see each other again in person, and several of us reported being moved to tears at the conclusion of the Zoom hui (gathering). Nobody wanted to push the “leave meeting” button—how often can we say that in our typical Zoom meetings that have become so much a part of our norm today?

At that moment we were acutely aware of how precious these heart-to-heart, creative soul-to-soul relationships among Indigenous artists have become. Simply being in each other’s presence gave us a sense of hope for the future—figuring out how to use technology to reach out to each other across the Pacific through the songs and protocols that we were still able to observe is a tremendous expression of Indigenous resilience in the ever-changing landscape of the modern world. It was an example of hope in a time that often feels relentlessly chaotic, unpredictable, and frightening.

When Indigenous artists gather, when they have the tools, the space, and the precious gift of time, the creative fire ignites and spreads to others in the most positive of ways. When artists work collaboratively together in a space, the art they create becomes greater than anything an individual acting alone could have produced.  There is a spirit, a kind of magic, that happens when artists share freely with each other across cultures. With shared histories of colonization and cultural reclamation, we understand each other more immediately, and on deeper levels. Each talented artist brings his or her ancestors into the room, as well as their uniquely individual experience and skills.

This is both the promise and the hope for the new Indigenous art space to be stewarded by the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. Establishing the Center for Native Arts and Cultures will help foster a sense of belonging—a place to build community and a sense of family within an urban landscape that can often leave people feeling isolated, especially urban Natives who may have moved to the city as a result of the federal Indian Relocation policy of the 1950s and 60s.

The new space will honor the centuries-old history of the Portland area as a site for trade and exchange, this time with an emphasis on the creative economy of the arts. The Indigenous peoples of the Columbia River are still the original hosts of the land, and the acknowledgement of their presence makes it possible for visitors to the area—and indeed anyone who is not a citizen or descendant of these tribes are visitors—to understand that they have a place and a presence that builds on centuries of Indigenous land stewardship in the region. Public art by Lillian Pitt (Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama), Greg Robinson (Chinook), Greg Archuleta (Grand Ronde) Shirod Younker (Coquille/Miluk Coos/Umpqua), Tony Johnson (Chinook) and others remind all visitors that the Pacific Northwest is home to a wealth of powerfully vibrant Indigenous cultures and art forms. Their work both welcomes and reminds people that, wherever they travel, or for however long they have made their homes in a certain place, everywhere is “Indian Country”.

Like the Longhouse at Evergreen, it will take many people working in partnership with each other—both Native and non-Native allies—to realize the vision for the new Center for Native Arts and Cultures. It began with the plan to transfer ownership of the Yale Union building to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. The philosophy articulated by Yale Union board president Flint Jamison is on point: “Having been able to fulfill our mission through the unearned privilege of property ownership, it’s now time that we hand over the keys!”

This is the kind of structural change that begins to address some of the inequities faced by Indigenous peoples resulting from centuries of oppressive federal Indian law and policy. It can become a model that other like-minded allies can and should consider. At a time when continents such as Australia, world treasures such as the Amazon rainforest, and our own west coast are on fire, we are compelled to center Indigenous ways of water and land stewardship as if our lives depend on it . . . Perhaps it is now more clear than ever that, in fact, they do. Our world leaders need to be guided by the teaching that mankind is not the supreme being of the world and is but one small part of the greater ecosystem of all living beings. Nikaaniganaa is an Ojibwe concept that expresses the idea that “we are all related.” We use this term to punctuate our daily offerings of tobacco and water in our prayers for the world.

For a people who lost the vast majority of their ancestral lands due to colonization, reclaiming any Indigenous space is a victory; in the densely populated city of Portland, which once served as a major center for Indigenous trade and exchange, it becomes a historic phenomenon.

During this time of a global pandemic and heightened suppression of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, under the name of patriotism and the guise of “liberty”, the opportunity to reclaim space for Indigenous arts can become the birthplace for a revolution of the human spirit.

Bawdwaywedun Banaise describes the time of the Seventh Fire in this way: “In the time of the Seventh Fire the Osh-ki-bi-ma-dizeeg’ (New People) will emerge. They will retrace their steps to find what was left by the trail . . . the Sacred Fire will again be lit.” The Seventh Fire is a time of choice and hope. If the people choose the right road, then “the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth and Final Fire—an eternal Fire of peace, love, brotherhood and sisterhood”. Finally, he asks: “Are we the New People of the Seventh Fire?”

Tina Kuckkahn-Miller, J.D. (Ojibwe)
Vice President for Indigenous Arts, Education and Tribal Relations

The Evergreen State College

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